Letters To students - (Including Myself)

Style and Musicality

Style and Musicality  

Simplicity or complexity are not gauges of musicality or measures of artistry. Dig into your limitations, strengthen them, your style must conform to them!  

Don't worry about your limitations. Step past the technique and into music making.  

Be "sure footed" in those things you know will work for you.


Take that which you can play, and make it as "musical" as possible!  

The student will say "Iv'e been working on that part for ten minutes now and still can't get it to sound right".! The teacher replies, "don't worry" do it for another ten hours and it will sound much better".  

The point is that it is difficult for the student to realize how much practice (repetition) it takes to sound like the artists they listen to.  

They "The Masters" are like Olympic gold metal winners. They eat, breath, and sleep it. Even the most talented had to spend a lot of time learning to just go from chord to chord in "unbroken time" with no goofs or pauses. (I'm not talking here about pauses like getting up and grabing another beer out of the fridge, (although a break might help!). What I am talkin' about is that "clock" organizing the sounds. (Organized sound = Music)  

The more you are plugged into that steady rhythm, the more musical your playing will sound. Even if you only know a few chords (actually just one will do) you can plug into a nice steady rhythm and sound musical.  

We all forget how much time and effort it took to learn how to walk across the room without stumbling or falling back down. Or how much time and repetition we put into learning each word that built our vocabulary now used to speak in well formed complete sentences. Is there any reason our musical abilities should take less work?  

Don't worry about what you can't play! (Just keep working at it.) Take that which you can play and make it as musical as possible! Put it into a solid rhythm. Maybe just one note bopin' along. Once you get the feeling of playing in solid time, it's easier to plug in new things. In other words, Build the foundation, the rhythm, then the house. Then start hanging all those cool things on the walls. Our minds are so ready to focus on the glittering details we may easily dismiss the simple elements that are holding the music together.  

(c) 2007 Stan Hirsch

Bringing that Fuzzy Ball Of Sound into Focus

Bringing that Fuzzy Ball Of Sound into Focus  

-Stan Hirsch -  


What you practice should depend on the outcome you desire.  

If you can get a clear vision of exactly what that is you desire to learn, then the lesson plans are easily drawn up.  

Do you really know how you want that music you are working on to sound?  

Do you hear it clear enough to vocalize it?  

Try to get a clear vision of it -  

where it is not just some fuzzy ball of sound that's out there.

Talk To Your Hand

"Talk to your hand"  

Why do we use our strongest hand for the strumming or picking? Because we need that accuracy and strength for the most fundamental and important part of music making; The rhythm! Most of us forget this because we become unavoidably preoccupied with the fretting hand and all the flashing, shinny, glittering details. You know-this little "lick", running up there! (This includes the camera men shooting music videos.)  

For most of the lessons I recommend damping the strings (by lightly placing your left hand on them) and working your right hand on the "strum". This will create a percussive sound and really bring out what that right hand is doing. We want to do that because this right hand -playing in good strong time-is the dictator! (Unless you're left handed.)  

This is the hand God gave you to create the groove. The left hand (and all them notes, chords, etc...) need to fall in line with that. Of course when you're learning new chords, licks, scales, stuff, whatever; attention has to be directed to your left hand fingers. But don't start thinking that this is the important part. Figure out what you need to do, then direct that attention back into plugging that stuff in line with the right hand: You know, where the music is made! 

Vocalizing- Your voice, the act of vocalizing things, has a very unique pathway to and from your mind. Vocalizing is a direct link to thought-and to creating reality. (Hearing the music then having it materialize as sound.) It is a way of placing musical patterns firmly in your mind and then coaching your hands. If you can vocalize the rhythmic patterns alone, or rhythmic patterns attached to arranged notes then you've got it! All you have to do now is teach it to your hands. (Not always quick or easy.)  

All musicians who play any music (complex or simple) that sounds solid can vocalize what it is they are playing. From the basic rhythm to the most complex arrangement of notes. This does not mean they can "sing" them in perfect pitch (although some can), but they can vocalize the phrasing (rhythm). They hear the part (inside their head) and can bring it out into the physical world by vocalizing it. Then play it on their instrument.  

(c)2007 Stan Hirsch


Notes to the Students:(#2) 

The tone and dynamics of the sounds made by the hands, coming thru your guitar, are a step beyond the correct note pitches and rhythms. You may be playing the same notes in the same order as another guitarist- but it doesn't sound the same. If it sounds somehow better to you, the chances are that artist has more control of the dynamics- sometimes very subtle.  

If you can hear the difference- congratulations! You are then closer to controlling those dynamics. 

When you're playing in the groove it feels effortless. It's a river that's flowing, and you just jump in, floating on the current, and standing on the bank. Playing the music- being totally into it, while also standing back and listening to yourself. (You can do this with just one chord or note! Don't think you have to wait until you know more about guitar and guitar playing - or theory, or anything else.) 

You need to work your hands- get them strong enough on the technique to go beyond the physical and into musical expression.  

Don't add information-(at the cost of deepening your understanding of these very basic music making ingredients.)  

Disclaimer:There are a lot of valid (and not so valid)exceptions to just about everything I teach. (c)2007 Stan Hirsch  

(See the sub-section on this page- Dynamics of a movin' groove.)


Learning to play a musical instrument well is really no harder than just learning to walk, skip, jump and talk.  

That which makes it seem hard is the fact that in most peoples lives learning to play an instrument well is not as valued as those other things. Therefore not as much time or effort has been put into it.

Dynamics of a Moving Groove

Lack of dynamics is one of the things that can really separate your playing from that of the masters.  

You may be playing the same notes in the same order as another guitarist- but it doesn't sound the same. If it sounds somehow better to you, the chances are that artist has more control of the dynamics- sometimes very subtle. If you can hear the difference- congratulations! You are then closer to controlling those dynamics. When you're playing in the groove it feels effortless. It's a river that's flowing, and you just jump in, floating on the current, and standing on the bank. Playing the music- being totally into it, while also standing back and listening to yourself. You need to work your hands and get strong enough on the technique to go beyond the physical.  

We get from the clock to the beat, from the rhythm to ----  


"THE GROOVE" Hey Man -- It's "riding the crest of the wave", it's "hittin' the sweet spot", it's "playin' in the pocket". it's "makin' you wanna' move", it's "Swingin', it's "the feel" it's "cookin".....,  

Or more academic---  

(1) "carefully aligned concurrent rhythmic patterns"  

(2) "an artistic element having to do with aesthetics and style".  

(3) "an intuitive sense"  

Or more meta-physical--  

"that which makes the music breathe".  

Obviously, there is a mysterious quality to the word groove as applied to music. (Try referencing it from a few different sources.) Is this groove thing something that can be taught? Are there techniques that help you "play in the groove"? Is it just intuitive? Can we fake it? 

OK, --That's the groove part--What about the dynamics? 


I am not referring to just the more tradition musical dynamics of volume, but also note and beat dynamic and stress accents and, control of the timing.  

Now these things can be taught, but you've got to listen.  

In order to listen you need to unplug your brains attention from the visual (dots, lines, numbers, finger directions, etc...) and direct it to the audio.(i.e. your ears)  

Don't let those dots and #'s on five or six lines fool you into thinking you are improving your musicianship. You must listen to do that. You must develop enough technique to play steady, staying with that beat. You must not be letting the physical work drain your attention away from listening. You need to go beyond those finger and hand problems to be able to stand back and hear yourself.  

The natural tendency is to keep adding information at the cost of deepening our understanding about the very basic stuff which is at the core. (Those things that are helping to create the "groove".)  


First, you get the beat.  

Where are we going to get our beat from? The clock. Which clock? (The most obvious one is the heartbeat.) But we can set any speed (tempo) for that clock. 

TIMIMG: The "DOWN BEAT" and the "CLOCK" will be tied together in this way?  

CLOCK tic---------tic----------tic---------tic----------tic-(on and on)?all even  

How fast or slow the beat is (what speed the clock ticks) is called the tempo.  

OK, we've got that beat going---Let's now start adding dynamics to turn that muscle coordination and good timing into something deeper. The ability to control the timing is a great way to deepen that groove!  

First: You can hold that time back-Like holding back a downhill train. Just reining it in --not slowing it down--just a slight braking action. Sort of like hittin' it on the end instead of the beginning. OR: You can push it! Drive it slightly. Just before that beat has "hit the ground runnin' ". 

VOLUME:Obviously volume is a dynamic taken very seriously.  

In "classical" notated music there are generally four standard dynamic volume levels. (Each with it's own symbol, p soft, mp moderately soft, pp very soft, ppp softest possible. Then same four degrees for loud, f loud, mf mod. Loud, ff very loud, fff we're talkin' heavy metal here.) WOW! 

In many cases, how loud or soft you play is a matter of the traditions of that particular genre. That said---the use of volume dynamics is dependent on the abilities of the player(s). 

Loud: Push it out there with all you've got! Remember, acoustic guitar players used to perform acoustically for rooms full of folks dancing and drinkin'!  

Soft: Late night in the bedroom playin' just for your babe.  

Most importantly---it's the contrast that can help create a great groove! 


A great way to improve the groove is by tightening your attack. One way to achieve this is by muting!  

Muting helps to define the space between the notes.  

First--- the strumming hand.  

"Palm muting"  

" is achieved by placing your hand on the strings (bass strings for now) just where they pass over the saddle. On the typical acoustic guitar, the bridge is wood, the saddle is that plastic thing that is slotted in the bridge. Just start by playing that open 5th string with your thumb, then place the pad of your palm, near the end of your wrist, on the string. This should not impede your ability to freely move your thumb.  

Eventually you will find the right spot, one that lets the note sound, but also dampens (mutes) it slightly. Some players use this as a place to ?anchor? their hand. (Too far towards the sound hole? Too dead! Not far enough? No mute!)  

Then, the fretting hand "squeeze" 

Fretting hand chord muting requires a bit of coordinated timing. In this case, right after you pick (Sound) a note(s) let go of the fretting pressure. Your fretting hand finger(s) stays on the string(s) ready to apply pressure (press down on it) again right as you pick it, then "let go" again. This should allow that note (or chord) to sound just briefly, then "kill" the sound of that note (or chord) right after you pick it. 


The ability to place accents on any "down beats" or "up beats" is another technique that can sure help the groove. (Dance music relies on this.) That accent may be just volume. It may be a different tone. Maybe its the silence before and after that could bring it out? You need accents!  

In traditional "western world classical?  

" fashion, the first beat of each measure (The downbeat) is accented. You must be keenly aware and really feel that one. That is where most chord changes happen. (That is the firmest bass drum kick in a band.)  

And the "back-beat"  

---well, if you can throw that in there, you can fire your drummer and still keep em' dancing! You do that by accenting just the 2nd and 4th "downbeats" (Generally the snare drum) It can really drive the beat!, or try accenting just the upbeats, that can really make it jump! 


So, --diggin' the deep groove! Timing-Volume-Muting and Accents are our tools.These are the dynamics we need control over.